‘Lockdown forced us to look at ourselves in the mirror and finally meet who we truly are’

Writer-producer Gayatri Gill on weaving tales set during the lockdown in her debut fiction and what it exposed about our homes and families.

When the lockdown 1.0 began and “a pall of gloom descended upon all”, Gayatri Gill began writing stories for friends and family, to be read between daily chores. “I’d write one or two stories a week and send them off to my friends and we’d giggle and laugh over them,” she says. What started as an experiment on a few closed Whatsapp groups soon exploded, and the stories were widely shared. Many began calling and messaging Gill asking her for more of such “terrible tales”. Eventually Renuka Chatterjee and Ravi Singh, of Speaking Tiger, picked them up and have now turned them into a book titled A Day Before Today: Lockdown Stories. With illustrations by Niyati Singh, the stories explore varied experiences related to the present times — how a status update on Facebook is the only communication with a sibling in a containment zone to a young girl obsessing about the masked stranger in the aisles of a supermarket.

Though this is her debut collection of short fiction, Gill is no stranger to the world of storytelling. Based in Mumbai, Gill is a producer, scriptwriter, story editor and co-founder at Swastik Productions, and has over 15 years of writing and production experience across television, digital, animation and documentary formats. Excerpts from an interview:

Where did you find these stories? How much in here is derived from facts?

I found these stories hidden in dusty corners of my mind. I’d say they’re both fact and fiction in equal parts, mostly because this strange apocalyptic world is no lesser than the best sci-fi film we’ve ever seen. So a lot of the characters and the journeys they take are derived from the shared reality we’re all facing today. However, the stories I’ve explored aren’t ‘just’ about the pandemic, they’re about fractured people living through this extremely isolating time. And what becomes of them when they’re left to deal with their demons confined within the four walls they call their ‘home’. These stories resonate the reality of this strange experience and all the many facets of humanity that being in ‘lockdown’ has thrown up, and yet they offer a flight of fantasy allowing the reader to explore a darker, more unusual unknown. In a nutshell, this is a collection of terrible tales about the people we are or may have been — sprinkled with a generous dose of darkness and imagination.

The stories are dark yet funny. Did the tone come naturally or did you have to search for it?

I feel humour is the best form of defense. When nothing else can defend your sanity, laughter becomes your one true friend. To live, laugh and travel free of any boundaries is what makes me who I am. And this pandemic just destroyed all that, not just for me but for countless others. And it threw up a plethora of questions that forced your mind to romp through fields of unexplored land. Who would’ve thought a time would come where sanitisers and face-masks would become the greatest weapons of self defense? Who would have believed that staying home would make us win one of the greatest battles mankind has ever fought? So lacing these dark tales with humor felt like the most natural thing to do. It made the tragedy of what we were going through a bit more bearable.

Why are there so many non-Covid deaths, more specifically murders, in the stories?

I’m a massive fan of thrillers and murder mysteries, and I enjoy both reading and writing them. Although these stories take place in the backdrop of the pandemic, none of them, barring one, is directly about the disease. Covid-19 is a propellant; like petrol being poured upon material that was already inflammable. I like stories about fractured people dealing with impossible situations with climaxes that turn the tale upon its head, and somewhere that’s what I attempted to do. These were initially written for a close group of friends and family and no one wanted to hear any Covid-related stories. We needed an escape from the lives we were living and the tales emerged from that place. Though dark, these are stories of hope to me. Of finding solutions even in the darkest of times, even if the solutions you find are twisted.

What has the crisis and the lockdown exposed about our homes and families?

Fissures and strengths I’d say. I feel it’s made us all turn inwards. It’s taught us to be self-reliant and independent, to seek happiness within our four walls and open our eyes to the world we built that we call ‘our’ family. We’ve never spent so much time at our own homes stuck with the people we love most. Isn’t it strange that you were given all these years to live free and then one day your gates were locked up? You couldn’t get out, so you had to make do with ‘your’ choices for the first time in your life. It’s like we were all forced to look at ourselves in the mirror, breathe slowly and finally meet who we truly were. It brought families together in ways no bought experiences ever could and made us all see faults in our worlds while teaching us that we needed to fight this through.

You’ve looked at the present times through the lens of the future in a few stories. How hopeful are you?

Very. We’ve walked through some pretty tough times. Sure it’s been with a wry smile on some days and teary eyes on others, but the important thing is that we never stopped walking. We’ve found solutions which we’re embracing and learning to enjoy no matter how bizarre they may have sounded in throwback 2019… We’re living, laughing and clicking selfies through this time too… I hope we will be given another chance to undo all the wrongs we’ve done to nature and to the earth. There have been countless strands of dissonance we’ve been brushing under the carpets for so long — from migrant workers to gender violence to issues of class and caste. This time I feel we’ve memorised some very important lessons even though they’ve been very hard to learn. And this pause button that was thrust upon us forced us to face some very harsh truths.

Is there another book in the pipeline?

Yes, there are several ideas flitting about in my head. I want to do a set of nonsense tales for kids and then I have a story about a boy and his dog set in a strangely dystopian world, which I’m already working on. Other than that there’s a digital show and a small film in the pipeline.

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